PennDesign lecturers marry digital design and artisanship for public art installation

When asked to submit a proposal for a public art installation in Dublin, Calif., last year, the first thought Deirdre Murphy, a fine arts lecturer at PennDesign, had was “science.”

Murphy has been researching bird migration and murmuration—flocks of birds flying together—for several years, using the data sets to conceptualize her paintings. Drawing from her previous work as Hawk Mountain artist-in-residence and installation artist for a Parks for People Philadelphia playground project, she proposed a “Warbler Migration Sculpture” that depicts the migratory flight pattern of Orange Crowned Warblers, and the constellations by which they navigate, through the northern California city of Dublin.

When Bay West Development awarded the project to Murphy, she teamed up with a PennDesign senior lecturer with expertise in sculpture and 3D design: her husband, Scott White.

A lecturer in animation and, like Murphy, a Penn alumnus, White has a unique pairing of talents: He can create digital models in 3D virtual space, and he can build physical models in 3D real space. This project called on him to test the limits of both.

“It has been my most ambitious project to date, and working with Scott has stretched my knowledge of art-making,” Murphy says. “It’s been so exciting to see my 2D paintings come to life in 3D space as sculptures.”

Conveying in 3D the spatial relationship depicted in Deirdre’s paintings required a hyperbolic curve, White says.

“If I modeled it digitally, there would have been a disconnect between the resulting sculpture and what it looks like in real space. I’ve been teaching computer modeling for 20 years, and this project was the first time I ever ran up against something that couldn’t be done digitally.”

Unable to use present technology to solve the problem to their satisfaction, White employed his knowledge of past technology—specifically 1930s car building. He constructed two negative wooden jigs, each of which took up an entire bay of their garage. On each, he assembled more than 500 hand-cut aluminum plates that were later welded together to form the pair of hyperbolically curved flocking patterns depicted in Murphy’s paintings.

Murphy says that the process of thinking in reverse required for the project has inspired her to explore different media, such as printmaking and wall-mounted sculpture, once the “Warbler Migration Sculpture” is completed in April 2017.

And next on the docket for White?

“Scott is going to build a tree house for our 7-year-old daughter and rebuild a 1972 Super Bug with our 12-year-old son,” Murphy says. “The kids will definitely be glad to have their dad back on the weekends.”

Art Installation